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Retired Railway Officers’ Society – address to meeting - 7 July 2014

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Health and Safety in Great Britain – 40 years on – a review of the last 40 years and the challenges that remain

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me, not just for lunch, but to speak here today.

Today I will cover some of the journey that the HSE has taken over the last 40 years, to look at some of the key challenges that it has been dealing with and how it has gone about it, and to consider the challenges that the future may hold for us.

It won’t be possible to cover everything, so for those of you who want the low-down on every key event in health and safety regulation in Great Britain, please visit the timeline on HSE’s website – it’s all there.


One hundred and forty years of workplace regulation and experience preceded the launch of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, the accumulation of this ‘know how’ began back in 1833 when the Factory Inspectorate was created.

When the Act was introduced it created a new system based on less-prescriptive and more goal-based regulations, supported by guidance and codes of practice.

For the first time employers and employees were consulted and engaged in the process of designing a modern health and safety system. The Act also established the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) to propose new regulations, provide information and advice and conduct research.

Some of the key health and safety hazards at this time included asbestos and other dusts, construction, genetic manipulation, ionising radiation, lead, noise and vinyl chloride. A number of those are still a hazard in workplaces today.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was formed on 1 January 1975 under the leadership of its first Director, John Locke. HSE's remit was to undertake the requirements of the Health and Safety Commission and to enforce health and safety legislation in all workplaces, except those regulated by Local Authorities.

A number of regulatory and scientific organisations transferred to HSE at this time, including, here goes: the Factory Inspectorate; Explosives Inspectorate; Employment Medical Advisory Service; Nuclear Installations Inspectorate; Safety and Health Division from the Department of Energy; the Mines Inspectorate; the Safety in Mines Research Establishment; the British Approvals Service for Electrical Equipment in Flammable Atmospheres; and the Alkali and Clean Air Inspectorate!

One of the first tasks undertaken by HSE was the re-organisation of the Factory Inspectorate into a series of 21 Area Offices and 11 Local Offices, supported by Field Consultant Groups, comprised of specialist scientific and technical staff.

The story of the Health and Safety Laboratory’s (HSL) inception begins in the early 1900s, its only a few years younger than your organisation. The Laboratory was set up by Winston Churchill to assist in the debate between mine workers and mine owners over whether coal dust could be explosive, it was originally based in South Wales. Unfortunately its explosive experiments were a problem as people rushed in fear to the pit head after every detonation. Hence its move to Buxton, it’s home today, where the locals, used to the sounds of quarrying, weren’t worried about explosions.

Let’s briefly fast forward.

In 2007 I joined as Chair of the then HSC. Shortly afterwards, in 2008 and following a previous consultation, The Health and Safety Commission and Health and Safety Executive merged powers and functions to become a new single body with the name ‘Health and Safety Executive’ and my role became Chair of HSE.

The mission of the HSE “to prevention of death, injury and ill-health to those at work and those affected by work activities” has been consistent since its establishment. It has worked to the principles that those who create the risks should be responsible for managing them in a proportionate, practical way.

These principles have been key to HSE’s success over the last 40 years, and it’s these principles that ensure the approach to regulation is fit for the future.

Standards are set in terms of outcomes to be achieved, not by straitjacketing dutyholders and business into doing things in a particular way according to prescriptive rules - and simply ticking boxes. The legislation places ownership and responsibility for managing risk where it belongs.

This makes it universally applicable, back then, now and in the future – regardless of the type of work activity - farming, fracking for shale gas or manufacturing nano-technology in an ultra high-tech laboratory.

This approach has proven itself to be far more effective than a prescriptive rules based alternative. GB’s health and safety performance compared to any other country in the world proves that. It is also a system which is designed to enable growth, and innovation, to take place. Forty years on we have a system which is widely recognised and lauded as world class and which others want to copy.

While our mission has remained unchanged, the environment in which HSE operates certainly has not. There have been major shifts in the landscape of industry in the UK particularly with the decline of the heavy industrial base. There has been a revolution in the technology around communication; there have been changes in attitudes to funding and resourcing, with the current reducing trend firmly established; there has been the EU’s involvement in H&S legislation. There has also been the development of the “goal based” approach to regulation, seeking to ensure H&S as an integrated management process, alongside a much enhanced understanding of risk and how to assess it.

A number of major external events have driven policy and regulatory focus. In November 1987 Kings Cross underground; in July 1988, Piper Alpha; in May 2004, Stockline; in December 2005, Buncefield. Legionella outbreaks occurred in in Stafford in 1985 and subsequently in Barrow and Edinburgh.

The 1980s saw the introduction of the COMAH safety case regime and the regulation of offshore installations as well as the first major focus on getting to grips with asbestos related death and disease.

The ‘90s brought the challenges of transposing EU Directives into UK law and the introduction of the ‘six pack’ of regulations covering the broadest areas of both old and new H&S risks. Also the major event of introduction of Construction Management and Design Regulations.

What about the railways?

Nineteen ninety, saw responsibility for railway safety pass from the Department of Transport to HSE. This took place following heavy criticism at the time for the Department of Transport’s Railway Inspectorate poor protection of rail passengers and for not employing modern risk assessment techniques.

The transfer was seen as beneficial because it passed the responsibility for safety to the main Government health and safety regulator and away from the transport industry’s representative government department. The privatisation of British Rail during the period 1993 to 1996 saw a hundred companies taking charge of the rail industry. HSE introduced a new regulatory framework to manage the challenges to railway safety culture and risk management that took place during this period. The key components of the regulatory framework included new safety cases and permissioning regimes.

At the beginning of April 2006 the Railway Inspectorate moved to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). There’s plenty more on HSE’s role in regulating the health and safety of the railway industry online. One document in particular may be familiar and of interest to this audience, ‘A Farewell to Trains’ is available to download, it contains a speech by Bill Callaghan when he was Chair of HSC and data on fatal injuries from 1947 to 2004.

Where we are now

So, before we head to the future. Let’s just take a look at some figures. British industry has changed substantially since the introduction of the HSWA in 1974 and data shows there have been large reductions in work-related injury and ill health.

Between 1974 and 2013 (our latest statistics available):

Where are we today and how are we facing the future?

The various health and safety related reviews, most recently Martin Temple Chair of EEF’s Triennial Review of HSE, have recommended areas for improvement and fine tuning but none have challenged the fundamental framework of what we do or how we do it - they have reaffirmed that our H&S regulatory system is fit for purpose.

HSE has been leading the way in tackling issues around:

We, in HSE are no different from any other business. We maintain our effectiveness by updating and evolving our systems, but our core business and principles, as I said before, remain the same.

Knowing we have the best and most effective system in the world is not about being complacent – or cocky. Far from it – there’s plenty to do – injuries, fatalities and ill health challenges remain and the world of work is constantly changing so we need to move and adapt as well.

Facing the future

All our guidance publications have been reviewed. We have overhauled our website and the comprehensive review of ACOPs is almost complete. The first phase of revised ACOPs have already been published, with the second phase ongoing.

This process has involved a huge amount of consultation with our stakeholders. We have sought to engage with relevant stakeholders and involved them in the redrafting which has enabled some streamlining of the consultation process.

For smaller, low risk businesses, we have revamped our basic health and safety guidance – and re-launched it as a web based tool – Health and safety made simple. It has been accessed over one million times – so you could say it’s proving to be popular.

The online Health and Safety Toolbox, born out of the old Essentials of Health and Safety publication, is the next level of guidance up from Health and safety made simple. It’s aimed at those who need some more detail on specific hazards and issues.

All the materials we’ve created are fit for purpose, simpler to understand and for businesses to act on and they are being used.


In Europe – we’ve been arguing for proportionate regulation and only where its needed.

Our priorities now are to use the EC’s own review of the Health and Safety Acquis and the development of a new OHS strategy to ensure that new requirements are based on good evidence of need and that the continued need for/value of some existing regulations are reviewed. We will not give up in pressing for policy to based on risk rather than hazard.

We will continue to press the case for proportionality and effectiveness of measures – for example in relation to risk assessment requirements, by working with the rest of UK Government on the Balance of competences review and with the PM’s EU Business Task Force.

Aside from regulation we also continue to work with other Member States and the European Health and Safety Agency in Bilbao on some of the really intractable problems we share – particularly the toll of work-related ill-health and long latency occupational diseases. 

Transposition of EU regulation is also a careful balancing act for us – adopting a copy out approach where we feel that the regulations/directives are proportionate  – but also being prepared to stand up for tougher standards where we feel EU legislation does not go as far as needed – such as in some areas of the COMAH and Asbestos regulations.

Broadening our horizons

Other countries want to emulate our system and over the last few months I have visited both the UAE and Singapore to discuss potential opportunities for HSE to support them in their work. Contributing to saving lives in workplaces matters, wherever those workplaces are in the world.

It’s right that we should offer our advice and experience to help and support other countries in developing their own systems.

National cultural differences present challenges, which we are aware and respectful of. In some economies a challenge is posed by the vast diversity of multicultural workforces.

While principles of effective regimes and systems can be transferred from one country to another we recognise that they must be adapted and customised to deliver results in different cultures and with diverse workforces. We believe this is an important and exciting role for us to take on – and is one which can in turn deliver benefit for British business, if the safety regime in other parts of the world is one which is familiar.


You may be aware that HSE is aiming to become more commercial in some of its activities here in GB as well. The process of commercialisation – is not privatisation, we and our Minister are very clear about that.

Our core purpose remains being a first class regulator. It is what creates our reputation and makes us a leader. But after 40 years we have a wealth of knowledge and expertise which has a value and people want to continue to have access to that knowledge and advice. We need to respond but in a way that is fit for purpose for the 21st century.

We are therefore developing a delivery plan that aims to identify our strengths and areas of unique expertise and our systems, and to consider ways of reducing the cost burden on the taxpayer via central Government funding.

We are exploring how best to progress the agenda of commercialising more of our services and activities. The benefits to be gained from this meet wider Government purposes, such as promoting UK excellence overseas, and potentially create regulatory regimes in other parts of the world which UK businesses are familiar with working in – as I mentioned.

But we believe there are also opportunities closer to home.

This work to establish a more commercial mindset is a challenge for the organisation. It needs to be properly resourced, we need the right organisational structure to enable us to do it.

The intent is to realise the value of the intellectual property and knowledge which we create and build in carrying out our role as a regulator by developing a portfolio of products and services which we can offer, in parallel, both nationally and internationally.

Communication and Delivery Challenges

As HSE heads towards the future we do so confident that the principles of Great Britain’s system are solid and fit for purpose. However, the way we deliver our work needs to be under constant review in order to maximise our effectiveness.

The forthcoming asbestos campaign provides a useful example of how we’re implementing new approaches.

Building on our previous, successful Hidden Killer campaign, we will employ a different approach when the new behaviour change campaign launches this autumn.

We’ve gathered solid evidence on which to develop the campaign strategy.

Our purpose is to identify and put in place things that will change people’s behaviour – for the better. Awareness raising is simply not enough – it is real and lasting behaviour change that will enable us to stay world leading in our health and safety performance.

The way we communicate about health and safety is a key area that needs to change – not just because of changes in the shape of the business world but because the people we all employ respond to different things. I recently learned that several universities are now taking on employees to communicate with students via social media because today’s 18-20 year olds don’t use e-mail any more. An interesting snippet of news in passing maybe but actually a real warning call to us all to think about whether our “tried and tested” means of communication which have worked in the past are fit for purpose now let alone in the future. We must not underestimate the size of this challenge – every one of us recognises the communication gaps between generations among our own family and friends but it is equally true in our workplaces.

Industry leaders need to adapt and change their approaches and not expect the next generations to settle for the ways of the past.


Let me talk briefly about our cost recovery initiative. Back in 2012 to enable HSE to recover its costs when and where we encounter material breaches which require time and effort to help put right, we introduced Fee for Intervention (FFI).

We’ve been paying close attention to how it operates and what people think of it. The query and dispute levels remain remarkably low and the indications are that many of the fears expressed by stakeholders before the system started have failed to materialise. In the interim however we have heard other concerns expressed about the impact of FFI on HSE’s relationships with dutyholders.

An independent review of the operation of FFI is currently underway which will also seek to gather evidence to examine some of the issues raised by Martin Temple in the Triennial review concerning  perceived unexpected/unintended consequences of FFI and the outcome of that review will be made public in due course.


And finally, in marking the 40th Anniversary of HASWA we will be running a two-week programme at the end of July to promote discussion and debate around the positive impact the Act has had on the safety of Britain’s workplaces. This campaign will also provide a great opportunity to look at the future role HSE will play and how we plan to evolve to respond to future challenges. We hope to broaden that into a debate about how the whole system needs to respond to the challenges of the 21st Century.

I hope that you’ve found this talk interesting and that I’ve been able to give you an idea of where HSE has been and is going. Over time the organisation has stuck to its principles, what we’ve tried to ensure is that the way we work is fit for purpose – this work to constantly update our approach to ensure it is fit for purpose will never stop.

Thank you.

Updated 2014-07-17